When I was younger, the only thing I knew about the LGBTQ+ community were the ideas of "tomboy" and "bakla."
In grade school, I watched my masculine-presenting female classmate get forced to wear dresses and skirts even though she clearly wasn't comfortable with it. Like her, I wasn't at ease wearing these types of clothes, but unlike her, I sucked it up and fell in line because I was afraid to get scolded as she did.
I had crushes on both guys and girls but kept the latter a secret because none of my other female friends liked girls, too. And frankly, there were times when I felt out of place because of this.
It took me two decades to come into terms with my sexuality and I kind of wish it didn't take that long.
Limited frames of reference
Steven Universe, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Adventure Time, The Legend of Korra, The Owl House—these are shows that I watched as an adult that I wish I had when I was a kid.
Seeing non-binary characters like the Gems from Steven Universe would've helped make me think there was nothing wrong with wanting to not fit in with gender binaries. Watching Marceline and Princess Bubblegum's relationship blossom would've affirmed that there was nothing wrong with liking the same sex for me at a young age.
But sadly, it took a while for TV series like these with queer themes to really take off without getting censored as the media depicting these kinds of stories have been deemed as "inappropriate" for kids.
The Adventure Time Distant Lands episode Obsidian was banned in Southeast Asia and it's unavailable on HBO Go Philippines as it explores a homosexual relationship between two characters.
Now, I understand why there's caution with such content. For most of history, being LGBTQ+ is labeled as a sin by religion and it's punishable by law in 69 countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, and Maldives.
There's also the argument of kids are too young to learn about gay relationships and sexuality, but learning about queerness is much more than that. In addition, learning about LGBTQ+ issues doesn't just affect kids who are or might be part of the community.
More than sexuality
Growing up, gay was used as a derogatory term by those around me. I still hear it used as a slur every now and then, but I make it a point to tell these people that there's nothing wrong with being gay.
In the Philippines, Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that students experience bullying and discrimination because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. To combat this, anti-discrimination ordinances have been enacted in different areas of the country. As of 2020, 25 local government units have enacted this, and the battle against discrimination can start at home.
Talking to kids about LGBTQ+ topics and issues will help them learn that homosexuality shouldn't be something that's ridiculed, shamed, or repressed. This way, when they do come across someone queer, they aren't closed off to the opportunity to get to know them.
Another reason why queer cartoons are important for today's youth is that they normalize queer and trans experiences.
In 2021, the Trevor Project reported that LGBTQ+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide because of how they are stigmatized and mistreated in society.
"We need to let children know that they belong in this world," Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar told EW in 2018. "You can't wait to tell them that until after they grow up or the damage will be done. You have to tell them while they're still children that they deserve love and that they deserve support and that people will be excited to hear their story."
"When you don’t show any children stories about LGBTQIA characters and then they grow up, they’re not going to tell their own stories because they’re gonna think that they’re inappropriate and they’re going to have a very good reason to think that because they’ve been told that through their entire childhood," she added.
Let's talk about it
Teaching kids about LGBTQ+ issues doesn't necessarily mean needing to have the sex talk with them if they're not ready. There are age-appropriate discussions to help them understand what being lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and more mean.
Here are some suggestions on how to talk to children from Children's Hospital Los Angeles pediatric nurse Bianca Salvetti:
- Pre-school age (age 3 to 5) - Use language your child understands. Try to only address the specific question asked, without giving any further details. For example, if your child asks why their friend from school has two mommies, you can say, “Families can be different. Some families have a mom and a dad. Some have two moms or two dads. Some have only one mom or one dad.”
- School age (age 6 to 12) - As their questions about gender and sex become more complex and concrete, so should your answers. For example, your child may witness bullying of other classmates, and come to you for advice on how to respond. This is an opening to reinforce the value of treating others with respect. I.e., Your child tells you, “Tiffany cut her hair short and all the other kids were teasing her. Does that mean she’s a boy?” You could reply, “Having short hair does not make you a girl or a boy. How did you feel when you saw the other kids teasing her?”
- Teenage (age 13 to 18) - As children become teenagers, not only does their sexual orientation become apparent; their friends’ will too. Your children might ask questions as some of their classmates begin to be more open about their gender identities or sexual orientation. Teens may be using this conversation as a way to feel out your reaction to their friend’s “coming out.” However, also use this opportunity to really listen to how teens think and feels about LGBT people. Try to limit any judgments about things you don’t understand or don’t agree with. For example, if your child tells you that his friend is gay, ask what his thoughts and feelings are about it first before expressing your opinions.
Also, think of it this way, kids are exposed to relationships from an early age—their parents' heterosexual relationship, for one. Why not teach them that love comes in many forms and that it's okay to accept and love whoever they want to, regardless of their SOGIE?